“Tale of Tales” is one of the most visually impressive films I have ever watched during this year. Based on three stories from the 17th century fairy tale collection by Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, the movie wields plenty of memorable scenes of beauty or grotesque on the screen, and I could not help but marvel at each of them during my viewing. Unfortunately, these wonderful moments do not generate enough power together to engage me as being hampered by scattershot storytelling and languid narrative pace, and this is really a shame especially considering the painstaking efforts shown from them.
In the beginning of the first tale, we are introduced to the King and Queen of Longtrellis, played by Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly. While they are very unhappy due to her continuing infertility, the queen happens to encounter a sinister necromancer, and he offers her an odd solution to her unhappiness. There is some big sea monster at the bottom of the sea, and its heart will help her get pregnant.
As a man who loves and cares about his queen, the king instantly goes to the bottom of the sea while wearing a diving suit, and, after one of a few suspenseful moments in the movie, he eventually succeeds in having her get what she wants. As the necromancer instructed in advance, the heart of the sea monster is promptly cooked by a virgin woman alone and then served to the queen, who soon becomes quite happy to see what she has wished for so long.
However, she later comes to realize that her happiness comes with more price than she expected. Her dear son, whose appearance is as pale as that sea monster, grows up to be a young man on the verge of adulthood, and he is virtually inseparable from someone who happened to be linked with him at the time of their birth. The more the queen tries to separate them from each other, the more they tightly stick together.
In the meantime, the movie also unfolds two other fairy tales in parallel, which are slightly connected with the first one via its one early scene. In case of the second tale, we meet the King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) and then are later introduced to two other main characters Dora (Hayley Carmichael) and Imma (Shirley Henderson). In case of the third tale, we meet the King of Highhills (Toby Jones) and his little daughter Violet, who later grows up to become a fair young lady played by Bebe Cave.
The second tale starts with the King of Strongcliff waking up early in the morning after his another lustful night of debaucheries. As he looks upon the city from his place, he happens to hear a lovely singing voice coming from some alley, and he soon spots the very woman who enchants his heart from the distance, but it is soon revealed to us that this woman, named Dora, is not as beautiful as he believes. She is actually an old dyer lady living and working with her sister Imma, and she is at a loss as the king persists in his blind courtship.
At that point, Imma comes to have an idea which may benefit herself as well as her sister. As presenting herself to the king instead of Dora, she exposes only one finger to him, but then the King understandably wants more, so Imma must do something to hide the truth from him. As she tries to make her look, uh, more presentable to the king, we get an amusingly grotesque moment to watch, and then there comes a sudden plot turn leading to a far more disturbing one which will certainly make you cringe for good reasons.
The third tale also turns out to be equally dark and brutal after its own bizarre setup process. While his daughter performs a song for him, the King of Highhills happens to be distracted by a flea which somehow keeps evading getting squashed by him, and this very tiny insect eventually becomes an object of his obsession after he decides to keep it under his care. Constantly getting fed by him, the flea keeps growing more and more to his delight, and we cannot help but be amused by how bigger it becomes everytime we see it.
Meanwhile, the princess is left overlooked and neglected while her father is occupied with his private pet, and then she finds herself in a difficult circumstance when her father decides to hold an absurd contest for her future groom. Although the contest is started like a practical joke for the king’s own amusement, it becomes quite less funny when somebody comes in and then gives the right answer for his question, and this cruel reversal is followed by scary moments as barbaric and ruthless as you can expect from fairy tales.
“Tale of Tales” is directed by Matteo Garrone, who previously impressed me with his gritty crime drama “Gomorrah” (2008). While the movie deliberately emphasizes the unrealistic aspects of its stories, its special effects and make-ups feel quite realistic on the screen along with several real locations used for the production, and the overall result is weird and vivid as filled with various visual goodies to enjoy. Its production design and costumes are pleasures to behold in their details, and the cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and the composer Alexandre Desplat also make considerable contributions to the overall atmosphere of the film.
Despite all these enjoyable things, I only observed the movie from the distance while not caring much about its stories and characters. Juggling its three stories together instead of handling them one by one, the movie keeps losing its focus as dragging its multiple plotlines, and we only come to be more aware of how thin each story inherently is.
“Tale of Tales” is rather dissatisfying on the whole, but I will probably remember some of its memorable elements for a while. I enjoyed the scene unfolded inside a maze reminiscent of “The Shining” (1980), I was horrified by how one character mindlessly pushes herself to the bloody extreme just because of one casual remark, and I was amused to some degrees as watching how everything comes together as expected during the final scene. I just wish these things and many other things in the movie would add up to more than the sum of them.